Living “a useful life”: what drives Burkina Faso activist Cendrine Nama

She’s a 28-year-old businesswoman and singer in Burkina Faso. Cendrine Nama tells us how she combines the two as an activist for women’s rights.

I’m an entrepreneur in the field of communications and design. I’m also a fervent human rights activist.

Why such unexpected choices? Nothing could have predicted that the calm and quiet girl that I was would end up picking so many battles. Starting a business in this economic climate is hard enough; being young and being a woman makes it even more of a struggle. But I couldn’t just remain passive; I had to fight my way through.

I grew up in the city in a modest home. My father was a teacher and my mother a midwife. They taught me that I had as many rights as the men of the family, that I should make my own choices and do what I wanted to do.

When my parents sent me to the village during the holidays, I noticed that it was the women who provided for the whole family, thanks to their small businesses and other activities. Still, that didn’t give them the right to make their own choices.
Cendrine Nama, 28 years, businesswoman, singer & rights activist, Burkina Faso

When I was a little girl, I kept asking people around me: “Why? Why can’t you do this? Why can’t you do that?” And they would say, “That’s just the way it is; it’s always been like that.” And I would ask, “Why is it like that? Am I inferior to my brother because I’m a girl?”

But at home it wasn’t like that. My brother and I were treated equally; he did the dishes and I cooked.

From a very young age, my parents taught me the values of hard work, the courage to have your opinions, altruism and above all, to love and accept yourself.

Women denied choice

But once I left the family cocoon, I had a view of the real world and realized that not everyone lives according to these rules. I saw that in society, things were not the same as at home, and what I considered to be basic and essential was not available to everyone – that fundamental rights were being flouted.

One day, I overheard someone say in Moore: "Paag y'a CM2 ba la." They were saying that girls didn’t need to go further than primary school, they just needed to know enough to pay for vegetables at the market.

I realised women had virtually no rights. What they had was duties. They didn’t even have the right to choose what happened in their own lives. They remained eternally minors, passed from the guardianship of their fathers to that of their husbands.

Paradoxically, when my parents sent me to the village during the holidays, I noticed that it was the women who provided for the whole family, thanks to their small businesses and other activities. Still, that didn’t give them the right to make their own choices.

I told myself that we need to try to change this, because we live in a society where women think they have no rights at all. All they have is the possibility of finding a man. And this injustice is what motivates my activism today.

We are all united by our humanity. How can we feel good if one amongst us is persecuted?
Cendrine Nama, 28 years, businesswoman, singer & rights activist, Burkina Faso

Turning point

I first became involved with Amnesty Burkina Faso in 2010 through the campaign against maternal mortality. “Do you know that 2,000 women die in childbirth every year in Burkina Faso?” they asked me. I didn’t.

I told myself, “No! How is this possible today?” And the more time passed, the more I realised that things don’t necessarily evolve the way we imagine and we don’t have enough information about things. We need to raise awareness. We need to take action that matters.

So, I joined Amnesty’s Demand Dignity maternal mortality caravan tour in 2010 which covered all of Burkina Faso. I also recorded a song, “Donner la vie”, with other Burkinabé artists to help raise awareness.

With the launch of the My Body My Rights campaign... I want this to be a time when men will fight so that women can live free and whole.
Cendrine Nama, 28 years, businesswoman, singer & rights activist, Burkina Faso

I told myself that my life should at least be useful to others – that I should live a useful life. So, I threw myself into activism, civic engagement, African development, changing people’s mentality. I became a fervent activist for everything that could help change people’s mentality, to promote real development in Africa, and most of all, to promote real solidarity between individuals – because we are all united by our humanity. How can we feel good if one amongst us is persecuted?

Living solidarity

I lived this solidarity during the popular uprising in my country last October. I was in the street with so many people who wanted our country to go forward. We were tear-gassed, chased, but we helped each other so that none of us was left behind. It was a real moment of unity and solidarity that made me proud and filled me with hope.

Cendrine Nama taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in October 2014. The popular uprising ended the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaore.

Now, with the launch of the My Body My Rights campaign, I’m hoping to see a new way of thinking emerge so that women feel free to make their own choices and their dignity is restored. I want this to be a time when men will fight so that women can live free and whole.

In my activism, I encountered so many people who have, in their own manner, convinced me that everyone can take action. It is these people and these moments that galvanise me. Regardless of the difficulties that I may encounter, or the discouraging words I may hear, I press on. I say: “No, I want to live a useful life.”

Cendrine Nama is also director of Topaze, a communications agency, and fashion house Case Kamite. My Body My Rights is Amnesty’s global campaign on sexual and reproductive rights.